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Mao’s Last Dancer

Submitted by admin on August 19, 2010 – 11:44 pmNo Comment
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You really want to like Mao’s Last Dancer but in the end the film won’t let you make that deep of a commitment. Films like MLD strike an ambivalent tone with me. The high points are magical moments involving history as well as ballet plus the way the production incorporates actual Houston locations with Australian-lensed Houston locations.

The downside would be the film’s movie-of-the-week trajectory. The script invests so much time making the protagonist’s first marriage an emotional sticking point only to jettison its importance in favor of a second marriage that just pops up unexplained. The lead character is not the most interesting actor on display, and that too makes the story less spellbinding, especially during a rushed ending.

But the main story certainly deserves to be talked about, both because of its inspirational elements and due to the fact the events depicted took place in Houston in the late-70s and early 80s. A lead dancer with the Houston Ballet, on loan so to speak from China, Li Cunxin attempts to defect and the action creates an international incident.

Mao’s Last Dancer wants the story to unfold in epic style so we have a non-linear timeline that includes Li’s childhood in Mao ruled China, his teen years and the hardships faced by his parents, and then his amazing adult career as an internationally renown ballet dancer. Three actors play Li. With Chi Cao taking the role as adult Li to artistic heights, that is whenever he’s on a stage and dancing. The ballet sequences are truly magnificent and Chi has the grace to make every leap, spin and turn seem effortless. However when Chi has to hold his own in love or relationship based scenes he looks a bit lost. No problem, since the supporting actors – Bruce Greenwood as Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson and Kyle MacLachlan as Houston immigration lawyer Charles Foster – know exactly how to chew this kind of scenery. Greenwood is so commanding whenever he pops up, you almost want him to be the lead actor; although that would tend to negate many portions of the film that deal with Chinese ideology and history, and even the introduction of Madame Mao as a minor character.

Houston sequences are intercut with locations shot in Australia that are meant to be, say, Stevenson’s townhome or the Chinese consulate building (located on Montrose literally down the street from the Free Press Houston world headquarters). There’s good use of freeway driving shots of Stevenson and Li that shows the distinctive look of Houston cloverleaf style overpasses. Then they pull into Stevenson’s driveway and they’re obviously in Australia, certainly we’re talking about the trained eye.

There are establishing shots of Miller Outdoor Theater but these also are mixed with stage footage shot elsewhere. But as stated earlier it’s an expert integration of source and recreated material. At least this film, directed by Bruce Beresford, was actually partially shot here. In the recent Crazy Heart, which takes place in Houston during the last act, they only had one actual shot of Houston that was shot in Houston. (That was a picture car driving on Allen Parkway headed toward downtown.)

- Michael Bergeron

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